What we want in 2014: Break the mold, tech companies

Heading into the new year, it wouldn't hurt for the high-tech powers that be to get a little more stupid and crazy. Seriously.

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Here's some unsolicited advice to technology companies drawing up their plans for 2014: Dare to be stupid.

We saw plenty of that this year. Samsung Electronics raced to launch its Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and it was widely lambasted. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked up the idea of flying drones delivering our Blu-Ray discs and books , which got quickly written off as a publicity stunt. There's even a denigrating term for someone walking around wearing Google Glass: Glasshole .

In fact, the tech world could use a little more stupid and crazy. All too often companies settle on incremental improvement, banking on evolution rather than the revolution. Blame complacency, the need to meet quarterly deadlines, or just the fear of failure but what's clear is that companies tend to stay stagnant too long.

Windows 8.1 Start screen
The tile-based user interface found in Windows 8 represented an innovative step forward, but has largely been rejected. Screenshot by Ed Rhee/CNET

In fact, it's such a rarity to see true mold-breaking breakthroughs that we, as tech journalists, aren't sure how to react when faced with innovation -- we naturally fall back to our default skeptical positions.

Just look at the initial reaction to the Android mobile operating system, the dominant platform of our day, or the debut of the iPad, which was dismissed as a stretched out iPhone. Even Microsoft couldn't escape unscathed: After years of criticizing the company for being too slow to innovate, it comes out with a distinct touch-based interface for Windows 8 -- which was promptly universally panned.

But it is these leaps forward -- which may not necessarily be appreciated when they're announced -- that are what pushes the industry to do better.

The breakthrough products in 2013 -- even if some were just announcements and stuff of vaporware -- gives one optimism that next year will see companies willing to look dumb and endure the wrath of bloggers to blaze a new trail in technology. As jaded as we all are, we all want better. Yes, that includes Apple.

"I'm hoping there will be some fundamental innovation coming out of those guys," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer electronics at Current Analysis.

Here's are some current breakthroughs we want to see more of in 2014:

Smart headware
For whatever reason your head was what a lot of technology companies obsessed about this year. There was no bigger breakthrough than the introduction of Google Glass.

The smart headgear, which combines a tiny monitor and camera with bone-conducting audio, was the ultimate-in-geek item this year (only members of Google's Explorer program could buy one, and at $1,500 a pop), and made ripples in the industry as competitors clamored to move into wearable tech.

Entrepreneur and LeWeb conference organizer Loic Le Meur tries on two sets of Google Glass at the conference.
Entrepreneur and LeWeb conference organizer Loic Le Meur tries on two sets of Google Glass at the conference. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Explorer program was intended to cede devices to the market to spark ideas and new uses, and we'll hopefully see some of those applications pop up in 2014. Likewise, we could see Glass go mainstream with a consumer version -- which is hopefully priced at a more sane level -- hitting the market next year.

Not everyone is happy about the advent of the high-tech eyewear. At least one Seattle dive bar has banned the use of Glass , and there are bound to be other folks and establishments that object to the device, which can record video and take photos too.

While Glass is about augmenting the real world, a few companies were looking to use their own high-tech headgear to create a more immersive virtual one.

id founder John Carmack wearing the Oculus Rift headset Oculus

The Oculus Rift was technically announced in 2012, but we got our first real hands-on with the virtual reality helmet at the Consumer Electronics Show. The device was one of the coolest things at the usually staid conference, even if it was nowhere near prime time.

There are still bugs to be dealt with, including the odd feeling of disconnect between your virtual self and perspective moving while your body remains at rest. But Oculus is a company to look out for -- it just got a $75 million funding round that could help it bring virtual gaming to the market.

Then there's Avegant's prototype Virtual Retinal Display . Rather than the use of optics and displays, the Virtual Retinal Display, as its name implies, actually projects two images directly into the user's retinas, creating a 3D image.

In other words, it takes the Oculus Rift and does it one further.

Whether Avegant makes it out of the prototype stage, or if it finds applications in the military or in health care, remains unclear. But it certainly drives the field of wearable tech in a new direction.

Fashion meets tech
OK, the Galaxy Gear gets a lot of grief. But you have to give Samsung credit as the first major tech company to push a smartwatch in a big way.

Sure, there are startups such as Pebble and even a SmartWatch by Sony. But Pebble is at best a niche product, and Sony's attempts constitute little more than a side project.

Samsung launched the Galaxy Gear as a flagship product, backing it with a strong and -- even competitors concede -- effective campaign. It's clear the company is betting heavily on smartwatches succeeding.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Which is why the future of the Gear franchise is something worth watching. CNET writer Shara Tibken wrote at length about what it will take to be a success . Only time will tell if Samsung can create a drool-worthy product you would want to strap on to your wrist.

Speaking of watches, Apple needs to get into the mix. The company has gone a few years since its last breakthrough product, the iPad, and badly needs something to excite the general public. Apple could incorporate curved glass and the iPhone 5S's M7 activity processor, for starters. All with the trademark finish and design.

Scores of competitors have had their shot at a smartwatch, which opens the door for Apple to show them all up . The company has done it time and time again with the MP3 player, smartphone, and tablet. Can a watch be far behind?

Analysts seem to believe the time is right.

"This year is the year wearables break out and be a real thing," Greengart said about 2014.

Apple, meanwhile, also needs to step it up on the iPhone front. Yes, sales continue to be impressive, but the company has settled into a comfortable zone where it provides some incremental improvement, whether it's a fingerprint sensor or faster processor.

Can Apple wow us again? One can only hope.

Pipe dreams?
Motorola's MotoMaker feature, which allowed customers to tweak the color and material of their Moto X phone, may represent the first step toward the ultimate goal of users fully customizing every aspect of their smartphone.

Motorola

Think about it: People with the ability to choose the right amount of processing power, storage, the level of display quality, and the fit and finish of a device appropriate for them.

For now, it's theoretical, as there are many hurdles, including standards and compatibility issues that prevent that kind of level of customization. But Motorola's Project Ara is an indication the company is thinking along the same lines.

Of course, there are about a dozen handset manufacturers that probably don't want consumers making their own phone, so there's that small hurdle.

Amazon CEO unveils drone delivery concept
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos shares his company's latest innovation -- a delivery drone know as an Octocopter.

Another crazy dream that may turn out not so crazy is Amazon's talk of delivery drones filling the skies. OK, it was definitely a great publicity stunt, and got folks talking on the eve of Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year.

But Amazon is just insane enough to follow through with its bold claim. More practically speaking, it has the financial resources, a savvy enough leader, and the long-term vision necessary to pull it off.

At least one business doesn't think it's that farfetched .

Regardless of whether it comes to fruition, it's that kind of thinking the tech industry needs more of.

I, for one, can't wait to see what pops up in 2014.

 

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